Ellis Shuman

Popular Bulgarian singer hopes to restart career in Israel

Reni had Top Ten hits in Serbia, sold out concert halls in Sofia; today she raises her sons in Rishon Lezion and studies Hebrew at an ulpan.

At the beginning of March, Bulgaria celebrated Liberation Day, marking 137 years since the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule. A concert staged in honor of this national holiday filled Bat Yam’s Hechal HaTarbut with an eager audience, most of whom had Bulgarian roots. After opening words by Ambassador to Israel Dimitar Mihaylov, in both his native language and perfect Hebrew, the concert began with its bi-national theme – “The Bulgarian Spirit in the Holy Land”.

One of the singers who took to the stage was Reni, who sang an opening medley together with well-known Jewish Bulgarian television personality Etien Levy and the young singer Etienita Raichinova. Many in the audience were familiar with Reni’s singing, as she had once been very popular in both Bulgaria and Serbia, but she had since disappeared from the Bulgarian music scene.

The Bat Yam concert was almost like a comeback performance for the singer, or possibly, the start of a second musical career in Israel.

Bulgarian singer Reni (picture used with permission of the singer)

I had a chance to meet with Reni and learn about her hopes for the future. The first thing I wondered – why was this well-known Bulgarian singer living in Israel?

Raising a family in Israel

Reni’s husband is Jewish; his father is a world-renown pediatric cardiac surgeon who lives in Sofia. “There is no future for children in Bulgaria,” Reni says of their decision to raise a family in Israel instead. “My sons are happy here. They learned to speak Hebrew very quickly.”

Today Reni lives in Rishon Lezion but her husband continues with his business in Sofia, traveling every week between the two countries.

“You know that growing up in Israel, your son will have to serve in the army, even if he is not exactly Jewish,” I said.

“He is very excited about that possibility,” she told me. “In Bulgaria, I would have to constantly worry about him. Here in Rishon Lezion, he is very safe. At ten years of age, he goes out with his friends all the time.”

“What about your music career? Are you still popular in Bulgaria?’

“People forgot about me,” Reni admits, stating that she is not actively producing new music at this time. “I don’t have a company behind me, and [the Bulgarian music industry] is a closed circle.”

First Serbia, then Bulgaria

Born in Pleven, Reni moved to Sofia because her father was in the military. She studied violin and began singing at a young age. When she finished school, she joined an international music troupe and began touring Scandinavia singing pop rock songs and Beatles hits, all in English. She worked on cruise ships and sailed the Cyprus-Egypt-Israel route. “That is when I fell in love with Israel,” she told me.

Reni relocated to Switzerland where she began singing in Serbian for the local Serbian community. She put out four albums in Serbia, and her hits became very popular in that country. Only afterwards did she begin singing in her native Bulgarian as well.

Her Serbian song “Papagaj” (Parrot) was her first big hit. Her song “Moia Bulgaria” (My Bulgaria) won three prizes. Reni recorded a total of 13 albums, working under the tutelage of Bulgaria’s leading music mogul, someone who owned the country’s music television channel, record companies and discotheques. Her performances sold out NDK – Sofia’s National Hall of Culture – three times, with tickets to her shows going for high prices on the black market.

This was at the time of the rise of chalga – Bulgarian rock with an Oriental twist. Reni didn’t want to give in to the dictates of that culture, which required scantily clad women to belt out passionate ballads of sex and lust.

Eventually, Reni broke away from her producer to try to establish an independent career, but this was difficult to do. No one would produce her music; her songs were no longer shown on television or played in the clubs.

The Bulgarian spirit in the Holy Land

“Can you adapt to singing in Hebrew?” I asked Reni at our meeting. I already knew the answer to this question. At the Bat Yam concert, Reni sang a perfect rendition of “Hurshat Ha’Eucalyptus” (Naomi Shemer’s “The Eucalyptus Grove”).

“Of course,” Reni replied, “but first I have to learn the language,” she said. “If I could only pair up with a well-known Israeli singer for a duet, people would know about me,” she said.

Reni became popular singing in English, then in Serbian, and after that in her native Bulgarian. She has high hopes that one day soon she will become popular singing in Hebrew as well.

Bulgarian singer Reni (picture used with permission of the singer)
About the Author
Ellis Shuman made aliya to Jerusalem as a teenager, served in the IDF, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives on Moshav Neve Ilan. Ellis is the author of ‘The Burgas Affair’ – a crime thriller set in Israel and Bulgaria; ‘Valley of Thracians’ - a suspense novel set in Bulgaria; and 'The Virtual Kibbutz' - a collection of short stories. His writing has appeared in The Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Israel Insider, and on a wide range of Internet websites. Ellis lived with his wife for two years in Bulgaria, and blogs regularly about Israel, Bulgaria, books, and writing.